Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Big Bang Day or The End of the World as we Know It

By Mark Featherstone

[You can read a longer version of this post on our Sociology Research Blog: http://sociologyresearchatkeele.wordpress.com/2008/09/09/big-bang-day-or-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it/ ]

Sometime on Wednesday 10th September Scientists at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, will turn on the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) or ‘God Machine’ in an attempt to re-create the conditions of the big bang which originally gave birth to the universe. The LHC, dubbed the ‘God Machine’, is the world’s largest particle accelerator. Constructed under the Earth’s surface near the French-Swiss border, the objective of the LHC is to fire particles around its 17-mile circumference 11,000 times every second before smashing them together to simulate the conditions at the moment of the birth of the universe. According to CERN scientists the colliding particles will produce temperatures 100,000 hotter than the sun and enable them to observe the production of the famous Higgs-Boson particle which, in theoretical terms at least, gives all other particles their mass or weight. Thus CERN scientists believe that they will be able to observe the very production of mass or, in philosophical terms, the emergence of something from nothing through conditions generated by the ‘God Machine’.

The history of modern culture is characterised by critiques of supposed scientific attempts to play God. In this respect the invention of the LHC is no different. Less than ten days before the proposed turn-on date for the ‘God Machine’, critics from the scientific community, led by German Chemist Otto Rossler, launched a legal bid against CERN in the European Court of Human Rights. Rossler’s claim was that the attempt to replicate the conditions of the big bang could inadvertently produce microscopic black holes which could subsequently grow uncontrollably until they swallowed the entire planet and everybody on it. CERN’s position, which was that theoretical evidence suggests that any microscopic black holes produced by the ‘God Machine’, would immediately collapse in on themselves long before they could have macroscopic effects, was upheld by EU scientists. As a result the clock is ticking. According to critics of the ‘God Machine’ if we are not swallowed by a black hole, we will suffer through the production of ‘strangelets’, a ‘vacuum bubble’, or a variety of other totally theoretical un-intended consequences.

Given that I am not a theoretical physicist, I am in no position to comment on the relative value of Rossler’s apocalyptic view, which seems to have been dismissed by the scientific community, but there is more to the ‘God Machine’ than its scientific significance. For sociologists and cultural critics what is significant about the LHC, and the various responses to its creation, which range from quasi-theological claims about unlocking the secrets of creation itself to apocalyptic fears about the collapse of the planet into a man-made black hole, is that it has captured the public imagination in ways that the theoretical science which underpins its construction never could. What is this wider cultural significance?

In the first instance the LHC’s promise to unlock the secrets of the origins of the universe touches humanity’s primal need to understand the conditions of its own existence. Long before the Ancient Greeks first began to develop theoretical physics, prehistoric people had contemplated the stars and imagined their own origins. Before science became the dominant mode of thought, the form of knowledge which we turn to in order to understand our own existence, people thought about the world through religion. In much the same way that the ideas of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein failed to unseat religion, it is unlikely that the ‘God Machine’, which may uncover the origins of the universe and eventually explain how nothing suddenly became something, will ever stop people believing in their various Gods, simply because what it will never be able to uncover, or provide, is the human ‘meaning’ of the universe. No matter what the ‘God Machine’ enables scientists to say, it will never allow them to tell us why life matters.

Perhaps one day in the near future, the ‘God Machine’ may allow scientists to explain how nothing became something, and thus solve one of the most vexing problems in the history of philosophy, but they will never be able to answer the more trouble question that haunts the only self-conscious animal on the planet. Given that there is something, rather than nothing, what is the significance of existence? Why does ‘the something’ matter? If, as modern philosophers have long suspected, there is no meaning in existence, how should we live? How can we live in a meaningless universe? The beauty of the religious answer to this question of existence was, of course, that it was insoluble, in that nobody could prove the existence of God one way or the other, and that the more or less likely existence of what philosopher’s call a prime mover meant that somebody or something had cared enough to invent people in the first place. What would it mean if we were to discover that the universe was truly self-generating and that explanations about origins do not require a prime mover?

1 comment:

JTankers said...

Dr. Rössler calculates possible danger, senior Physics PHD Dr. Rainer Plaga calculates possible danger, former Nuclear Safety Officer Walter L. Wagner calculates possible danger.

CERN calculates no danger, if micro black holes are created they will evaporate in a burst of Hawking Radiation.

Professor Dr. Adam Helfer calculates that micro black holes may not evaporate, Professor VA Belinski calculates that micro black holes will not evaporate, Professor Dr. Otto Rössler calculates that micro black holes will not evaporate.

There are no "do overs" if we miscalculate.

Can anyone say "SAFETY CONFERENCE"?